Can you recreate football magic that’s five years old? That’s certainly a part of the equation Chelsea were trying to solve in bringing Cesc Fabregas back to the Premier League. With Lampard retiring, and van Ginkel young, untested, and coming off ACL surgery, there was clearly a need for an experienced player in midfield for the Blues. Cesc Febregas certainly ticks those boxes, but despite the giddy-ness at this transfer making Arsenal fans miserable from its mere existence, I think there’s some confusion about what Fabregas brings to the team and how big an improvement it will be versus last season.
Ignore the grousing from Barcelona fans. Cesc Fabregas at Barcelona was good, even though he was frequently played out of position, or as part of a system that never remotely played to his strengths. The fact that he let them play him out of position constantly, and basically buried his ego for what Guardiola and company perceived as the greater good says a lot to me about Fabregas’s personality. Pair him with a manager he trusts, and he will sacrifice for the team. That’s a damned admirable trait in the modern football world.
But Fabregas of 2006-2011? That guy was the best young midfielder in the world. He was also the best attacking passer the Premier League has ever seen. Starting at age 20, his consecutive seasons of assist totals were, 13, 20, 11, 13, and 11 at Arsenal. He’s one of only two guys in the stats era to post a 20-assist season, the other one being the guy Barcelona bought him to replace. However, passing wasn’t all he did. I’ve said it before on Twitter, but that 09-10 season is the single best one I have in my Opta database for a central midfielder or an attacking mid. He did everything then. It was immense.
Recent Fabregas was a bit less immense. Still incredibly talented, he was one of the best creators of goals in Spain, but Barcelona is like the Bermuda Triangle for stats translations. Normal compasses don’t work there. Their possession regularly averages 67-70% across a whole season, which wreaks havoc on defensive rate stats. (Clue: if your team has the ball all the time, you can’t record tackles or interceptions.)
However, despite having all that possession, they rarely lead the league in shooting chances. Their system tends to create shots from incredibly good locations, but not necessarily in the numbers you might expect.
Like I said, Bermuda Triangle.
So back to the question at hand… can you recreate old magic? Given that Fabregas is in his midfielder prime, I’m going to say yes for today. Because of that, I’ll compare an averaged version of Cesc’s stats from Arsenal 2009-11 to Chelsea’s players from last year and see how much of an upgrade Fabregas is, both at center mid and in attack.
I honestly don’t know where Mourinho will be playing Fabregas, but given that he is one hell of a manager, I’m going to assume he’ll do the work necessary to try and figure out how to adjust his system to get the most out of Chelsea’s new asset. The flexibility Fabregas affords in doing this is another perk of the deal.
Fabregas is the red bar here, and it’s clear to see that his average output from the last time he was in the Premier League obliterates what Matic’s partners produced last season. The only category he did not lead Ramires and Lampard in was tackles per 90, but he was close to Lamps, and when you factor in Interceptions as well, Fabregas leads in overall defensive output.
Yes, his usage rate at Arsenal was high, but it’s hard to understate what a massive upgrade Cesc will be offensively in central midfield at Chelsea.
Here’s the thing though… these numbers aren’t just good against Chelsea’s mids – they are good against some of Europe’s best as well.
Here’s Cesc pitted against Yaya Toure, widely considered the Premier League’s best all-around midfielder last season (it was Ramsey, but whatever). Also on this chart is Toni Kroos, Bayern Wunderkind, and a competitor for this same position, if Chelsea had chosen to go in a different direction.
Again, Fabregas blows them out of the water. The last time Cesc was in the Premier League he was truly, utterly, ridiculously good.
But maybe you think Cesc wasn’t really a CM at Arsenal and that Mourinho will be horribly unimpressed with his overall defensive work and be forced to play him as a 10. Fiiiine, I shall indulge you.
Juan Mata is on this chart because… um… he played there last season? Anyway, here’s Cescy against Oscar, Eden, and Juan, looking at the scoring stats. Much like the CM comparison, we see Cesc dominating in almost every area. Oscar edges him by the tiniest fraction in goal scoring, but Cesc is a much better provider than anyone Chelsea had playing attacking midfielder last season. This includes Belgian wizard Eden Hazard, where Cesc of the same age era beat him like a red-headed step child.[Caveat: Oscar is still young, very good already, and can be expected to improve further].
But scoring isn’t everything… what about the other categories? Done.
This clearly makes a huge difference, as Fabregas loses out in…
See what I mean?
“Sure, whatever,” you say, “but Chelsea had the whole market to choose from. What about better players like Isco (who was fantastic in Madrid this season) or the utterly amazing David Silva?”
I know, I know… it’s like a broken record. Compare EPL Cesc to Isco and Silva and you not only get the next Spanish buddy cop sitcom, but you again get Cesc eclipsing competitors in nearly every spot. To be fair, Isco edges him in goal scoring and dribbles, but I was almost shocked at how Cesc grades better than Silva in every category.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying Isco or David Silva are bad. I’m not even suggesting they are merely good. Those two guys are awesome.
EPL Fabregas? Awesomer.
Obviously, my comparisons today are built on a single assumption that may or may not prove true. As noted, Barcelona is the twilight zone for stats, and it’s hard to compare statistical output there to any other team. Don’t get me wrong, Cesc was good at Barcelona, even though they played him out of position regularly and the fans gradually turned on him.
However, “Fabregas, The EPL Years” was unbeatable at two different positions. If the player Chelsea bought can recapture that magic, he and Mourinho will conquer worlds.
As an Arsenal fan, I will now have deeply troubled dreams of blue-shirted Cesc pinging throughballs to Costa, Schurrle, Willian, and Hazard while the rest of the league watches in horror as Chelsea win not only the Premier League, but also the Champions League. Pre-Barcelona Cesc was a joy I’ll never relinquish, and watching him was a gift for me that can’t be recreated, which makes this a waking nightmare.
Yes, some small part of me will appreciate seeing him play in England again on a weekly basis, regardless of what color shirt he’s wearing, but that part is stupid, and non-partisan, and he can shut the hell up. Even acknowledging that part of me exists, watching Fabregas win trophies for Chelsea will be awful. (Chelsea fans: picture Lampard leaving in his prime and winning trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson and you’ll understand my pain.)
You bastards better learn to appreciate him, and fast.
Maybe I’ll be wrong, and Cesc is really on the downslope of his career, and he can’t return to being the player he was in those halcyon, trophyless days of yore in North London.
We’ll call that my hope.
My fear… is that I’ll be right.